Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Marfa Magic

Last October I visited Donald Judd’s home in Soho. I was affected by his aesthetic and obsessiveness about design and space. I knew that I had to visit his Mecca: Marfa, TX. In the 1970s Judd began buying property in Marfa, and eventually purchased a decommissioned military base.

Google Marfa and you’ll find that the main theme is being weird. Indeed, it is a strange place. I decided to visit Marfa over Easter break. Among other things, Marfa is difficult to get to. I flew to El Paso, via Dallas, and then drove three hours southeast.

I thought that I was familiar with small towns. I thought that I knew rural America. I thought my three years in Western Mass had initiated me into small town knowledge. I was wrong. Western Mass, Amherst and Northampton collectively, is a metropolis compared to Marfa. Marfa is in the middle of nowhere West Texas. There’s one stop light. There isn’t really a grocery store. There are a handful of restaurants. Without Judd, this town would barely exist.

I came to appreciate the jokes of novels and movies in which the main characters run into the same people over and over. Marfa draws tourists for the weekends. With a limited number of places to eat, streets to walk on, and tours to take, you see the same faces. I found myself thinking, “Oh.::sigh::those people again.” It was almost like being stuck on a cruise.

I visited Marfa after the recent opening of two new hotels/restaurants: the Capri and the Hotel Saint George. I stopped at the Saint George for a drink each night. I made it to the Capri for the most “meal” like dining experience I had in four days in Marfa. The highlight of the trip, food-wise, was a food truck, Food Shark, famous for their Marfalafel. Otherwise, I found the pastries/baked goods to be a solid choice. Since nothing is close by, all baked goods are fresh. The most endearing coffee shop, Do Your Thing, had incredible cookies and quiches.

Really, the art and architecture is the raison d'être. There are three tours to take of Judd’s work. I spread these out over three days to avoid overstimulation and tour fatigue. The first tour was of his studios in town. The second tour was his residence/studio. The third and longest tour I saved for last: the Chinati Foundation. Over six hours, you visit fifteen buildings on the decommissioned military site, view his outdoor works in concrete, and see the Chamberlain building in the center of Marfa. 

The entirety of these experiences was overwhelming. The realizations I had were magnified and intensified versions of what I felt in SoHo. Judd’s vision is very clear. His approach to life and art – really, minimalism, even if he wouldn’t use the word – is contagious. Judd’s furniture doesn’t have drawers; he believed that you should only have what you need, and it should be accessible. He thought that you should be eating or working in a chair – nothing else. He fused home and work spaces so that creativity could happen wherever, or so that you could take a nap where you worked. When I returned home, I sold a bunch of stuff on craigslist. Achieving a minimalist lifestyle is one of my larger goals. Having more than we need—
literally being stuck in our stuff—clouds the mind and limits possibility.

I was very affected by this visit to Marfa. I felt something new from travel. I visit places and enjoy them. I imagine moving to certain places. While I couldn’t see myself living in such a remote location, I want to visit Marfa every year. My family used to go to the same vacation spot every summer. I didn’t question this logic when I was young. But having traveled as an adult, I want to see new places before making second visits. However, I felt something different in Marfa.

I achieved a clarity of mind that I hadn’t felt in months. I’m sure the pace of things – literally no pace at all – helped. The clear blue skies, warm days, and cool nights helped as well. The unreachability of the place left me feeling unreachable. I liked it. I must return, if for nothing else, for a feeling.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Chicago Redux

I wanted to take it easy over winter break. I didn’t plan a trip. And then, I did. I realized I had to go somewhere. I’ve come to embrace my need for travel. I’m working on a theory that staying in the same place, without escape, produces the same effect as eating fifty Oreos; the closer you get to the fiftieth Oreo, the less you taste and enjoy it. It’s the same for me, but with place. The longer I stay in one place, the less I feel anything, let alone enjoy experiences. Thus, while I can, I have to travel. Days before Christmas, I checked flights to various cities. The price was right for Chicago. With endless restaurants and a few Frank Lloyd Wright sites, I thought, “Yes, Chicago in the heart of a warm winter.”

I had been to Chicago twice before. The first time, my visit was a 24-hour stop on a cross-country road trip with three friends during my junior year of college. I remember deep dish pizza, a Chicago dog, and the El. I think it rained.

My second visit was in 2009. I planned the trip around a dinner at Alinea. The three-day excursion was my first food-based trip. With a single-minded focus on food and drink, I didn’t feel much of the city.

Alexander Girard, n.d.
Therefore, I decided to do my thing in Chicago. I landed early on a Tuesday and headed for coffee and yoga. The coffee, at Caffé Streets in Wicker Park, was excellent. I arrived at the yoga studio I wanted to visit only to find out that they don’t have a shower. I recalculated the day and spent a while walking around the downtown loop looking at public art: Sol Lewitt, DeBuffet, Calder, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rookery Building. After practicing yoga at a different studio and checking into my AirBnB, I walked to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The building is very nice and the collection is fantastic.

I don’t do terribly tourist things, nor do I like to pay the price for touristy experiences, but I decided to go to the top of the John Hancock Tower at sunset. It was actually pretty great. Then I went to dinner at Vera. I was one of a handful of people in the restaurants for a few hours. I went for the sherry; the Spanish tapas were excellent too. After too many glasses of sherry, I decided to go for second dinner at The Purple Pig. I wish I hadn’t. It was a loud, crowded place with overly salty food.

Chicago Cultural Center
The second day I started at the Chicago Cultural Center. I missed a modern architecture exhibit by two days. But, the building is gorgeous inside with extensive mosaics. Then I walked along Michigan Ave. to The Art Institute of Chicago. I stopped at the Bean. I don’t know; I’ve never been sold on the Bean. Maybe it’s because everyone in high school owned that silly Tiffany Bean necklace. I stopped at Intelligentsia Millennium Park for a macchiato, before the museum. Very good.

Henri Rousseau, The Waterfall, 1910.
I walked in the door of the museum right when it opened and power-walked to the Contemporary Wing (later, I realized there is an entrance at the Contemporary Wing). I think that New York art museums have conditioned me to feel competitive about viewing art. I feel like I have to see things before the galleries become so crowded that you want to leave. I know, it’s New York, what do you want? I didn’t realize that Chicago would be beyond fine. I was not annoyed by people or groups, at any point. You can spend your whole day in this museum. I spent several hours taking my time, doubling back, and relaxing, despite my coffee buzz and competitive art-viewing condition.

After the museum, I went to Bow Truss coffee on Michigan Ave. All but one of the espresso beverages I had in Chicago were perfect: very impressive. Then I took the El to Oak Park to meet up with a friend from Philly before taking a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio. Built in 1889, the house is one of the earlier Wright structures (he was 22 at the time). This is a different space than any of his that I’ve seen. The house is dark, inside and out. After spending three hours at Taliesen West, this quick hour tour was a bit of a let down. It was over before I knew it. Then I walked back to the El and had first dinner at Girl & the Goat. Three solid food people recommended it. I don’t know. I didn’t love it. I won’t go on, as I don’t like to complain about food on this blog.

Au Cheval
I decided to rectify this dining disappointment by following up on the one dish I wanted to eat while in Chicago: the burger at Au Cheval. The restaurant was closed the day before due to electrical issues, so my first effort was thwarted. Au Cheval happens to be across the street from Girl and the Goat. People wait hours to eat this burger. I figured that, as one person, I could probably get in quickly. This was the case, as there was one seat at the bar. Within fifteen minutes I was eating one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. The egg, the bacon, the meat, the bun, the cheese, everything. Beautiful.

Pozole, Dove's Luncheonette
The next day I began with breakfast at Dove’s Lunchonette. I had pozole. Perhaps the choice was a mistake. It was still good; I liked the pho-like set up of tortillas, herbs, radish, and lime on the side. Then I walked across the street for donuts at Stan’s Donut. I, ahem, very conservatively ordered 5 donuts and did not finish them. The lemon pistachio and the Biscoff pocket were solid.

Next, I went to the University of Chicago campus for a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. Before the tour, I walked around the campus to see buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen: gorgeous modernist buildings. It was a rainy, overcast days, which didn’t help these buildings, but they were still beautiful. The Robie House is a pristine example of the Prarie School style, but again, the tour was a short experience.

Pork Belly Benny - Longman & Eagle
After the tour I met up, unexpectedly, with Chicago friends. They happen to be a couple who I adore. Thanks to Instagram, I was able to catch up with these two beautiful people. They took me to an excellent sushi place, Katsu Japanese Restaurant. Between the people and the food, this was a perfect final dinner in Chicago.

On the day of my departure, I had time for one more meal. I went to Longman and Eagle on the way to the airport. My friend’s sister works there and I trusted the recommendation. I had a pork belly eggs benedict, with homemade toast, that was utterly awesome. I wish I had more time to eat there for dinner. I made one more coffee stop at Bow Truss Coffee, Logan Square, grabbed a few pounds to take home, and jumped on the El the the airport.

In the end, I’m very much into Chicago. The city feels like a real city, but without the hurry of New York and without the bristle of Philly. I’ve only been there in the winter; I’m very excited to return when it’s warm.

Dubuffet, Monument with Standing Beast, 1984.
Sol LeWitt Wall Project, Lines in Four Directions, 1985.
Calder, Flamingo, 1974.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Home & Studio, Oak Park.
Pistachio Lemon, Orange Glazed, Stan's Donuts
Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, 1909.
Mies van der Rohe - Univ. of Chicago, School of Social Services, 1965
Eero Saarinen & Assoc., Univ. of Chicago, Laird Bell Law Quadrangle, 1960.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

36 Hours in Phoenix

When I started this blog in 2008, I thought it would be about beer, wine, and food in Philly. I had no idea that I’d leave the area for a few years. With little to write about in Western MA, the blog evolved to a focus on travel. While I’m back in Philly, I still prefer to write about other places. I’ve found that travel enlivens me. The experience of being “out of place” is my reason to be. I like the unfamiliarity. I enjoy the anonymity. Perhaps more so than others, I'm compelled to travel.

On my way to San Francisco, this past October, I made a stopover in Phoenix. I was looking to add another stop to the trip; the price was right for Phoenix. I visited Phoenix when I was in 5th grade. I recall Sun Devil Stadium and little else. Before this visit, I imagined that there would be a sadness about the city. I visited Las Vegas in 2011 and the effects of the housing crisis were visible, if not inescapable. I thought Phoenix would be the same, but with slight recovery. Phoenix didn’t have much sadness; perhaps, simply, I was happy to be in the sun. I don’t know that the city is vibrant, but everything I did was lovely.

My main reason for choosing Phoenix was to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West School of Architecture. I signed up for the three-hour extended tour. It is worth the extra cost. I visited Fallingwater in June; that tour is about an hour and is over in a moment. I plan to revisit and pay for a longer tour. At Taliesin, the extended tour allows the visitor to linger, enjoy tea and sandwiches in the dining room, and view other structures on the property. I spent three hours taking photos and vaguely listening to the tour guide. It was relaxing and gorgeous.

My other stops in Phoenix included the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, the ASU Ceramics Research Center, and Arcosanti. The SMoCA has a permanent James Turrell installation. I planned my stop to experience the hour before sunset. I was by myself the entire time. If you haven’t seen anything by James Turrell and you’re in the Philly area, checkout the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House. They open their Skyspace a few times a month. I fell in love with James Turrell at the Guggenheim in 2013. Since then, I seek out his work wherever I can. His art is an experience; it’ll challenge your conception of art. I could try to describe it further, but it would be pointless.

Knight Rise, 2001

With regards to food, I ate one meal in Phoenix. There was one item I wanted to eat: pizza. Specifically, I wanted to eat at Pizzeria Bianco. Pizza means more to me than one food should mean to a person. I hadn’t eaten pizza in five months. I wanted it to be very, very good. The lore surrounding Chris Bianco spans the continent. Admittedly, this was a very compelling reason to stop in Phoenix.
As a single diner, I can easily slip into restaurants with a long wait. Thus, I walked into Pizzeria Bianco around 7:00pm on a Friday to find one open seat at the bar. The service was rather off-putting; often, I think, people don’t know how to deal with a single woman. I ordered the Margherita and a glass of red wine. I’ve been educated in the pizza school of thought that you must try the plain pizza. Quite honestly, I ate the entire thing. The pizza was solid; the crust and the ingredients were good, and thus, you have a good pizza. It’s incredibly simple, but incredibly hard to achieve.

I stayed in Phoenix for a brief 36 hours. When I was in college I recall thinking that the NYTimes “36 Hours” articles were silly. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would spend such a short amount of time on a trip. In my head, every trip was a week long. Now, I understand the 36 Hours concept. It’s exciting for me to plan a quick trip somewhere new or somewhere I’ve been before. Certain places may not be great for a week, but they can be awesome for a brief stopover.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

San Francisco Lives

If I could move today, I’d relocate to San Francisco. I have a long-time curiosity with the city by the bay. In October, I visited for the fourth time. The first time I ventured west, I was nineteen. At that time, I was convinced that I had a previous life in San Fran. I felt at home there; it was as if I had been there before. I couldn’t drink, barely knew good food, rode a cable car, and ate too much Ghirardelli chocolate. While I don’t necessarily believe in previous lives anymore, I still adore San Francisco. With each visit, I love it a little bit more.

Lands End Park
I made many new stops, but did revisit a few places. I ate at State Bird Provisions again; it didn’t live up to the first visit, two years ago. I went to Russian River Brewery; always great, even though the food is very suburban, middle-of-the-road, safe. And, I stopped at Lagunitas for a fresh Lagunitas Sucks; I like their outdoor beer garden and am convinced that the beer tastes better closer to the source.

In my new ventures, I had one of the best meals of my life at Saison. For this incredible meal, I spent more money, not surprisingly, on one dinner than I ever have before. I’ve been very #blessed to have the means, friends, and time to eat at several Michelin star restaurants. I will never forget my first: Alinea, in 2009. Alinea set the bar for restaurant “experiences.” To quote myself, Alinea is “a completely indulgent escape from your everyday life.”[1] This rather theatrical dining performance has only been matched by Eleven Madison Park. There is something encompassing and experiential about these restaurants. 

I had no expectations for Saison. I avoided over researching. The twenty-course meal was beyond anything I could have imagined. The food was sleek and clean: simultaneously simple and complex. The service was also lovely, familiar, and polished. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, but I considered doing so after this meal.

Marin County Civic Center - Frank Lloyd Wright
Otherwise, I enjoyed slightly less indulgent dinners at Mission Chinese Food, Ramen Shop in Oakland, and Ippuku in Berkeley, coffee at Four Barrel on Valencia, Saint Frank, and Blue Bottle in Oakland, pastries at Tartine Bakery & Cafe, Craftsman & Wolves, B. Patisserie, tacos at La Taqueria in the Mission, and beers at Monk’s Kettle and Toronado. Needless to say, there was no hunger on this trip.

Aside from Saison, the other dinner highlight was Ippuku. This rather authentic feeling (so I’m told) Japanese place was very cool. I ate something that most of you will cringe at. When I tell people about this, in person, I say it with a sense of embarrassment. I feel bad writing it down. I ate chicken tartar. Served with a raw quail egg and nori, it was actually very good. The rest of the meal was also excellent. The entire experience was something you can't find in Philadelphia.

In the midst of all this eating, I visited the DeYoung Musuem, the Marin County Civic Center, saw Todd Barry in Oakland, and practiced yoga a few times. I still feel something in San Francisco. There is a familiarity and possible happiness about it. People seem content. The weather is enigmatic and not unpleasant. The food is endless. Perhaps I wasn't wrong about the previous life, or perhaps it's something about a future life.

Rebel Within - Craftsman & Wolves
Morning Bun - Tartine
Kougin-amann - B. Patisserie
Sea Urchin Liquid Toast - Saison
Black Sesame Spicy Tantanmen - Ramen Shop
Tori Yukke - Ippuku
La Taqueria

[1] Talley, Gina, “Chicago! Part 2: Alinea,” accessed January 9, 2016, http://www.femmefermental.com.